WEST POINT, N.Y. (Jan. 22, 2015) - Four hundred, ninety-six and a butt days until the U.S. Military Academy at West Point Class of 2017 graduation. USMA Cadets gathered at Washington Hall, some nervous, others eager for the less-than 500 days remaining in their collegiate lives Jan. 16.

"It's kind of crazy to think," Class of 2017 Cadet Emiliano Gonzalez said. "You get caught up in the day to day that you don't really get to step back a bunch, except for big events like this."

Cadets gathered and took photos in their dress-gray uniforms alongside their dates, friends and prestigious officers, knowing that the countdown to being commissioned officers has begun. "Just enjoy your time as a cadet," Class of 2016 Cadet Rebekah Estimae, the date of a Cow (junior), said. "Even though I'm still a cadet, obviously, and I do want to graduate and become an officer, I think it's good just to embrace this fraternity, this camaraderie of cadets, just enjoy your time here, enjoy events like this."

As the gathering was brought to the dinner area, cadets sat, excited for the night to begin and for Gen. Joseph L. Votel to take the podium.

"I was actually part of the group that got him to come speak," Class of 2017 Cadet Alyssa Chapman, who was one of the exchange cadets this past fall, said. "He spoke at the Naval Academy earlier last semester, and the cadets that were there went up and asked him to come to 500th Night … He's a great speaker and he's just got a very interesting career."

Class of 2017 Class President Andrew Katz stepped on stage first, addressing his classmates and fellow leaders. "While we are blessed with world class military, academic and athletic learning opportunities here at West Point," Katz said. "Old grads always seem to believe there is more to learn in the relationships forged here at West Point than anything else. We learn from those around us and empower those we come into contact with. "We have so much to look forward to over these next 500 days and so many people to be thankful for as we look around the mess hall this evening," Katz said.

Katz introduced Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. to the Corps and their guests. Caslen proclaimed the Class of 2017 mantra, "So Others May Dream!" And spoke to the second class cadets about the values of the Army and their future expectations. "In 500 days, you will assume the mantle of leadership as a commissioned officer," Caslen stated. "With the privilege of leading America's sons and daughters in defense of our great nation."

Caslen welcomed Gen. Votel, the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, and his wife Michelle. Votel began his oration reminiscing his time as a cadet at West Point until he graduated in 1980 and his preceding trips to visit. He also expressed his excitement of his job and what the Class of 2017 is looking toward.

"I truly love going to work every day," Votel said about his role in helping to accomplish the SOCOM mission. "It's a great life and I envy every one of you who are here, 500 days from the start of your Army journey. So 500 nights until graduation … from where you are sitting it probably seems like a lifetime away." He mentioned that "A lot can happen in 500 days," but those 500 days can go very quickly.
"The day you join the Army, we will ask you to lead," Votel said. "Know this--there will be a platoon of Soldiers waiting on you. They don't care where you went to school, what your GPA was, how many athletic or academic accolades you won or what your personal goals and objectives might be. "What they know is this--they voluntarily joined the Army to serve their nation," he added.

Votel left the Corps with four points offering tips on being successful officers: Be a good lieutenant first; Understand the valuable experiences of those people that are around you; Don't leave your values at West Point; and Learn to be a happy leader.

The audience responded with a standing ovation and Katz presented Votel with a saber on behalf of the Class of 2017.